CHEAP EATS: The American Fast Food Lunch Box Challenge

Now that I'm unemployed (retired) and living on a fixed income, I have to watch how much I spend on food. It's always affordable to eat at home but sometimes you just want to break out and let someone else to it for you.

Enter the challenge of eating out cheaply. Not an easy thing to do here in high-cost-of-living Southern California but we're going to give it a go.

This week, we're going to do the fast food lunch box challenge.  Many quick eating establishments now have lunch box meals with a complete lunch going in the range of $4-6.  Tim is going to be my taster.

We'll rate on these three much food to you get for the money? How good does it taste? and does it fill you up or leave you wanting more?

First, we'll try Taco Bell. Tim's having the nacho fries combo box with comes with a beefy burrito, taco, nacho fries with queso dipping sauce, and a drink. We're mixing it up with Taco Bell's Fire and Diablo salsa.

The taco is a Doritos loco taco, with the shell made out of Doritos, and has beef, lettuce, and cheese.

Tim liked the meal a lot. Everything tasted good and he liked the spicy taste of Taco Bell's beef. The nacho fries were the star of the show, next the taco...but he didn't care for how it fell apart so quickly...then the burrito.

It's a messy lunch so an apron was in order to keep everything neat and clean. Tim could only eat about two thirds of the meal, leaving half of the burrito and some fries, so it's very filling.

We got in on special for $5 but the regular price is $5.99. They have several combos but usually only one at a time is on sale for $5.

Tim liked the taste very much and he got more food than he could eat, so the price is pretty can actually feed two people on this if you wanted to.

Next up is Carl's Jr. For $5, we got a fiery chicken sandwich (chicken tenders is the other option), fries, drink, and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

Tim didn't think the fries were as good as Taco Bell. Let's see what he thinks of the chicken...

He likes it! He really likes it! 

Tim loved the taste of the sandwich. "I thought those were pickles in the sandwich but they were jalapenos," he says. "They were very fresh and spicy."

The cookie for dessert was also very good. Tim rates the taste very high on this meal. He thought it was filling and didn't want any more but he did finish it and not leave any leftovers. Great deal for the money.

Wendy's has a meal for a buck less. They're 4 for 4 meal features a 4 piece order of chicken nuggets, medium fries, drink, and your choice from about half a dozen sandwiches such as chicken sandwich, cheeseburger, and more. Tim's choosing the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger.

Tim says the burger is better than the Taco Bell offerings but not quite as good as Carl's Jr.

The nuggets come with two dipping sauces, we have ranch and barbecue sauce.

Tim says the nuggets are very good. The fries are good, too, maybe a bit better than Carl's but not as good as Taco Bell's nacho fries.

Finally we're going to finish with Popeye's Louisiana Chicken's entry into the $5 arena.

At Popeyes, five dollars will get you six boneless wings (basically chicken tenders), spiced fries, and a biscuit. Drink is extra here so Tim just grabs a can of diet Sunkist from the fridge.

You get a choice of dipping sauces, Tim's going with the Cajun Buffalo sauce.

Popeye's gets poinst for serving food Tim can feed himself (something to think about when you're disabled). The fries were the best of the bunch, even besting Taco Bell's nacho fries which Tim didn't think was possible.

The chicken was better than Taco Bell's entrees but he still likes the offerings from Carls Jr. and Wendy's better. Tim liked the spiciness of the chicken but felt it could have been even stronger.

He got plenty of food for his five dollars but, other than water, a drink would have blown the budget.

Here's how they stacked up for Tim...

1. Carl's Jr. Tastiest overall.

2. Wendy's. Good food, best value for the money.

3. Popeye's. Best fries of the bunch.

4. Taco Bell. Food was good but not as good as the others. Fries were better than Carls Jr. or Wendy's.

Next time you're looking for a cheap lunch away from home, keep Tim's tips in mind for a good, filling lunch.

Darryl Musick
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